Liquid Stone: New Architecture in Concrete
National Building Museum, Washington, DC. Curator: Martin Moeller
June 19, 2004-April 17, 2005
The seminal modern architecture exhibit in the United States was Modern Architecture: International Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1932. In a pamphlet prepared to raise funds for the exhibit, Philip Johnson pleaded his case: "At the turn of the century, Berlage in Holland, Behrens in Germany and Perret in France and above all Frank Lloyd Wright in America, made a definite stand for originality. Such progress laid the foundation for a complete revolution in building. The revolution was based on a full realization of the possibilities inherent in the new materials-steel and reinforced concrete…. All the discoveries made by the engineers while architecture had remained stagnant were now at the disposal of the architects…. A new style of architecture had been invented."(1)
Two decades later, in a book that accompanied an exhibit of post-World War II architecture, Johnson declared victory: "The battle of modern architecture has been won. Twenty years ago the Museum was in the thick of the fight, but now our exhibitions and catalogues take part in that unending campaign described by Alfred Barr as 'simply the continuous, conscientious, resolute distinction of quality from mediocrity—the discovery and proclamation of excellence'."(2)
Now 50-plus years later, Liquid Stone: New Architecture in Concrete proves an excellent contribution to the tradition of modern architecture exhibits in the United States that focus on "new" materials and design, and demonstrate that the battle for quality and excellence continues to be won.
Liquid Stone features 60 structures nearly evenly divided between "historical precedents" and new projects. The precedents are selected from monuments in concrete built between the 1st century and nearing the end of the 20th century. The new projects were designed or built in the past five years. The exhibit beautifully integrates the historic and the contemporary with a message that what is old is often still new and what is new may be a hint of what is to come.(3)
The exhibit begins with an introduction to concrete construction and ends with a denouement on its future. Between are sections that focus on three characteristics of concrete: Structure, Surface, and Sculptural Form.
The exhibit media are beautifully produced photograph-and-text panels, vintage and new video footage, and models. The National Building Museum and its fine exhibits attract substantial visitation, and on my several visits to Liquid Stone, the diverse audience was enrapt. Audiences love architectural models, and the exhibit satisfies that desire with a wonderful range of old and new. An original model of Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp in burnished oak is a show-stopper.
The introductory text panel describes concrete's ubiquity: "Concrete, produced at an estimated rate of five billion cubic yards per year, is the second most widely consumed substance on Earth, after water." To carry it all, more than 700 million concrete delivery trucks would be queued end-to-end for over 4 million miles! Public works projects such as paving, jersey barriers, and sound attenuation walls consume most of the annual production. Comparatively little ends up as artfully arranged as the architecture on exhibit in Liquid Stone.
Liquid Stone begins with the Pantheon dome (ca. 126 A.D.) in Rome, and continues with the Eddystone lighthouse (Joseph Smeaton, 1756), cast concrete sculptures (James Aspdin, ca. 1850), and an apartment building at 25 bis, rue Franklin in Paris (Auguste Perret, 1902-1904), the world's first major nonindustrial reinforced concrete building.
Perret's success was well-known, and historical precedents in the Structure section demonstrate a succession of advances in the use of concrete for its structural qualities, emphasizing both massiveness (Thomas Edison's concrete houses, ca. 1910), and thinness and structural daring (Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, 1930; Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, 1937; and Louis I. Kahn's Salk Institute for Biological Sciences, 1965).
Contemporary structures follow history's lead, including the sublime White Temple in Japan (Takash Yamagachi & Associates, 2000) and the 1.5-mile Millau Viaduct in France (Foster and Partners, estimated completion 2005). Simmons Hall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Steven Holl Architects, 2003), constructed with an innovative precast structural system, is also featured on the cover of the exhibit brochure.
Precedents in the Surface section focus on innovations in surface treatments such as early exposed exterior concrete at Wright's Unity Temple (1908), his "textile block" construction at the Ennis-Brown House (1924), and post-forming manipulation of the surface, such as Paul Rudolph's Yale Art and Architecture Building (1965). Some of the best contemporary buildings on exhibit have followed the artistic path of Wright's textile blocks. The Eberswalde Technical School Library in Germany (Herzog & de Meuron, 1999) is clad in large photoengraved concrete panels. The Visiting Artists House in Geyserville, California (Jim Jennings, 2002), is a collaboration among the owner, the architect, and an artist who used concrete saws to inscribe the walls with grand gestural arcs.
Precedents in the Sculptural Form section focus on bold engineering or artistic uses of concrete to create previously impossible open spaces (Max Berg's Jahrhunderthalle [now Hala Ludowa], 1913), previously impossible expressionism (Goetheanum, based on designs by Rudolph Steiner, 1928), and sculptural and structural tours de force (Robert Maillart's Salginatobel Bridge, 1930, and Utzon and Arup's Sydney Opera House, 1973).
The exhibit features superb examples of contemporary formal creativity, such as the Jubilee Church in Rome (Richard Meier & Partners, 2003) with its three "sails" constructed of 12-ton precast blocks, an origami-like private chapel in Almaden, Spain (Sancho-Madridejos Architecture Office, 2000), and the Museum of the 21st Century (Hariri & Hariri-Architecture, estimated completion 2007) near the site of the World Trade Center in New York.
The concluding section on the future of concrete features two new products that are manufactured by Lafarge, the exhibit's sponsor: self-consolidating concrete and a fiber-reinforced concrete capable of long, thin spans. Also featured are interesting new types of concrete that transmit light via embedded plastic or glass fibers.
The exhibit is aimed at a general audience—to help the public develop a greater appreciation for the history of concrete construction and concrete's high technical and artistic potential. For those well versed in historic structures, not much will be completely new, though the historical precedents allow fresh connections to be made. Some of the exhibit materials, especially vintage footage of the construction of the Hoover Dam (an unprecedented 4 million cubic yards of concrete placed between 1933 and 1935) and the immense parabolic airship hangars of Eugene Freysinnet at Orly airport outside of Paris (1921-1923), are worth the visit for even the previously initiated.
All aspects of the exhibit, curated by Martin Moeller and designed by the firm of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, are a pleasure. What could have been a forced march through 60 projects is artfully managed in a sequence of spaces that allows visitors to pace themselves and consider what they are seeing before forging ahead.
With so many buildings to choose from, Moeller must have agonized over the selection of historical precedents. One reinforced concrete monument's absence, however, is obvious even considering the several Wright buildings on exhibit, so I end with an unfortunately still-timely quote from 1952 regarding the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, completed seven years later: "But in respect of fantasy, no building even approaches the marvellous corkscrew Frank Lloyd Wright has planned for New York City's Museum of Non-Objective Art…. The building is to be executed in reinforced concrete and according to its architect it would, in the event of some aerially inflicted disaster, bounce like a spring but never collapse."(4)
National Park Service
1. As quoted in Philip Johnson, "Built to Live In" (March 1931), in Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 29.
2. Philip C. Johnson, "Preface," in Built in USA: Post-war Architecture, ed. Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Arthur Drexler (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1952), 8.
3. The online version of the exhibit at www.nbm.org/liquid_stone/home.html includes details about most of the contemporary projects featured in the exhibit.
4. Arthur Drexler, "Post-war Architecture," in Built in USA, 26.